March 19th, 2010
March 19th is the official date to honor St. Joseph, aka San Giuseppe, the carpenter-husband of Mary and earthly father of Christ. While the Festa di San Giuseppe is a major holiday in the historically Catholic countries of the Mediterranean and beyond, nowhere is its observation more serious than in Sicily and among the Sicilian diaspora of North America.
As with most Italian-American holidays, food plays a major role. Legends relate that the intercession of San Giuseppe saved the population of Sicily from famine. To commemorate their salvation and display their gratitude, Sicilians placed offerings of food on an altar where it was blessed before being distributed to the poor.
The custom has spread and elaborate versions of the altar or tavola (the St. Joseph “table”) are annually recreated in Los Angeles, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and several towns in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas—all communities enriched by Sicilian immigration.
Once a major port of entry for Italians, New Orleans manages, in typical fashion, to make its festa all-inclusive, and anyone who cares to participate, including later immigrants like Vietnamese and Latin Americans, observes the mid-Lent holiday. It’s tamer and more introspective than Mardi Gras just past, and less somber than Good Friday around the corner. Falling in the season of Lent, the traditional offerings often include meatless treats like St. Joseph’s Pants, deep-fried chickpea-filled cavazune, the Sicilian word for calzone. (Chickpeas and fava beans were Sicilian staples long before Christianity and remain so today.)
Adherence to Lenten abstinence has changed: today’s devout are more likely to give up reruns of Sex in the City or text-messaging than McDonald’s. It should not surprise anyone that barbecue is now a component of a Texan St. Joseph’s celebration featured in the film, Texas Tavola.
Of all the altar’s adornments, most spectacular are the breads (cudureddi*) and pastries in the forms of fish, crosses, crowns-of-thorns, hearts, doves, lambs and other Christian symbols. Some are extremely labor-intensive and so elaborate that they are never meant to be consumed. Rather, they are shellacked and kept from year-to-year. Others, including more modern confections that one would recognize from any Italian christening or bridal shower, are given away to guests and the needy. Cooks gather weeks ahead of the holiday to bake, and the film Texas Tavola pays particular attention to the selfless camaradarie of those who literally spend weeks in the kitchen, and for whom cooking is a devotional act.
Whether one shares the pilgrim road to Santiago, joins a Habitat for Humanity building crew, or dons an apron for two weeks of making biscotti, the intent is to lose oneself in a collective act of contemplation, fellowship, and generosity. Not a bad thing, and a much better way to connect with one’s community than Facebook.
Although it helps to be Italian-American,Texan, and Catholic, you don’t have to be any of these to be deeply moved by the townspeople depicted in the film Texas Tavola.